Thursday’s Pregame Shootaround: A major AAC battle takes place

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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 13 Cincinnati at No. 12 Louisville, 7:00 p.m.

The biggest game of the season in the American will be taking place at the Yum! Center tonight. Cincinnati has been the best team in the conference all year long, jumping out to a 19-2 record and an 8-0 start in league play. But Louisville has long been considered the favorite to win the league in their only season as a member, and it looks like they have finally turned a corner this season.

Cincinnati is big and physical, surviving on their defense and rebounding to win games. The good news for Mick Cronin? Justin Jackson, the anchor for this group defensively, will play after rolling his ankle on Sunday. Louisville is getting healthy as well, as Chris Jones will be back in the lineup, although his presence may not be quite as beneficial as Jackson’s is to Cincinnati.

Whatever the case, this is not only for first place in the conference, but for a chance to mark down the best win of the season on either side. Is Cincy for real? Has Louisville really turned things around? We’ll see tonight.

MID-MAJOR MATCHUP OF THE NIGHT: Chattanooga at Davidson, 7:00 p.m.

Davidson has been the power in the SoCon over the course of the last few years, but Chattanooga looks dangerous this season. Will Wade’s team has reeled off 10 straight wins, including an 8-0 start to league play. Win at Davidson, and the Mocs will have firm control of the SoCon race.

MUST-WIN OF THE NIGHT: Providence at Marquette, 7:00 p.m.

The Friars didn’t do enough in non-conference play to truly solidify their standing as an NCAA tournament team. They also haven’t done enough on the road to be considered more than a home-cooking expert at this point in the season. Marquette? Well, they just can’t afford to lose too many more games before their name cache stops getting them the benefit of the doubt.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1) They may not have Chris Walker yet, but No. 3 Florida plays at Mississippi State at 7:00 p.m.

2) Purdue will pay a visit to streaking No. 10 Michigan, who recently took over firm control of the Big Ten race by winning at Michigan State.

3) Houston heads to UConn where the Huskies will look to get revenge for the loss they suffered on New Year’s Eve.

4) It’s UCLA’s turn to stake a claim to being the second-best team in the Pac-12, but Oregon, for all their troubles this season, is one of the most talented teams in the league. Expect a lot of scoring.

5) A pair of key smaller conference league games: Louisiana Tech will play at UTEP with first place on the line, and Bryant visits Robert Morris, who is undefeated but without four rotation players.

Postponed games:

  • Mercer at East Tennessee State
  • Kennesaw State at USC-Upstate
  • South Alabama at Georgia State
  • Samford at Furman

What’s Wrong With Kansas?: After losing back-to-back games, are the Jayhawks still contenders?

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Kansas entered 2017-18 as a preseason top four team, the consensus favorite to win their 14th straight Big 12 regular season title and a contender to make a return to the Final Four and win Bill Self his second national title.

It made sense.

The Jayhawks had an All-American running the show at the point in Devonte’ Graham. They had a former McDonald’s All-American slotted to start alongside him, while two top 20 recruits – sophomore Udoka Azubuike and freshman Billy Preston – anchored a front line that was not deep but that did provide some quality size. There were some easily identifiable issues, but what team didn’t have easily identifiable issues?

In short, there was no real reason to think that Kansas would not be able to do what they always seem to do.

And yet here we are, on Dec. 12th, and the Jayhawks are coming off of back-to-back losses for the first time in four years. That was the year that the Jayhawks lost at Colorado and at Florida with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid on the roster. You have to go back all the way to Nov. 2005 to find the last time that the Jayhawks lost consecutive games that were not on the road. That year, they lost their first two games in the Maui Invitational, and after dispatching Chaminade in the seventh-place game, came back to Lawrence to lose at home to Nevada.

What happened here?

How is it that we all thought would be so good, that looked so dominant for stretches early on this season, lost back-to-back games in the manner that they did?

1. KANSAS DOES NOT HAVE NEARLY ENOUGH BODIES

You cannot talk about Kansas without first mentioning that the Jayhawks are playing with seven scholarship players right now. We’ve been through this over and over again, so I won’t spend too much time on it, but ignoring this problem would be like blaming Goodyear for your flat tire while ignoring that you drove your car directly into a pothole.

As it currently stands, the only players that Bill Self has available to him off the bench are sophomore Mitch Lightfoot and freshman Marcus Garrett. Lightfoot is a stretchy four that should be playing sparingly at this point in his development; he’s being asked to provide 15 minutes a night as the only big man on the roster other than Azubuike. Garrett is a top 50 recruit that has a chance to be a good player and a valuable contributor down the road, but right now he’s not quite ready to provide quality minutes playing, at times, the small-ball four role Josh Jackson played last season.

This is a problem that could get solved by the end of the month. Sam Cunliffe, a transfer from Arizona State that averaged 9.5 points last season, will be eligible for the second semester. At the very least, he’ll provide another shooter, another athlete and five more fouls on the perimeter. The issue is whether or not Preston or high school senior Silvio De Sousa will get eligible. Preston is still sitting out as Kansas and the NCAA work through who paid for the car Preston crashed last month. De Sousa needs to get a high enough test score to graduate and be eligible to enroll early.

Preston should help provide offensively – more on that in a second – while De Sousa would essentially be another big, physical body that can give the Jayhawks rebounding, rim protection and five more fouls.

Both are necessary.

Devonte’ Graham (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

2. KANSAS NEVER REPLACED THE TOUGHNESS THEY LOST WITH JOSH JACKSON AND FRANK MASON III

I discussed this with Jeff Goodman on the most recent episode of the College Basketball Talk podcast. (See below.)

There has never been a player better suited to being a small-ball four in college than Josh Jackson. Let’s for get, for a second, that he was a 6-foot-8 two-guard that could block shots, rebound the ball, make threes and create off the bounce as well as most college point guards. He was also a winner, competitive as all hell and unafraid of the contact and physicality that comes with playing in the paint in the Big 12.

The same can be said for Frank Mason III, who was a pitbull of a point guard. He, too, was uber-competitive and unafraid of a fight, figuratively speaking.

The Jayhawks not only had two alphas on last year’s roster, both of those alphas were all-americans-turned-NBA players. Jackson was the No. 4 pick in the draft while Mason, a second-rounder, looks to be the best rookie point guard in an organization that also drafted De’Aaron Fox.

Who does Bill Self turn to to find that kind of mental and physical toughness?

Devonte’ Graham is a leader in his own way, but he’s not Mason and he doesn’t lead by example the way either of those two did. Svi Mykhailiuk is not tough enough to handle playing the four the way Jackson did. He was barely tough enough to handle the on-ball pressure Arizona State put on him on Sunday. Lagerald Vick is tough, but he’s also a role player and a spot-up shooter that stands all of 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds. He’s not replacing Jackson at the four. Malik Newman isn’t the answer. Mitch Lightfoot certainly isn’t the answer.

There isn’t an answer, far as I can tell.

(Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

“This is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here,” Self told reporters on Monday.

There are two places where that lack of toughness has manifested itself.

It starts on the defensive end of the floor, where Kansas arguably lost their two-best perimeter defenders in Jackson and Mason. Graham and Vick are plus-defenders, but Graham has, in the past, been at his best when he’s chasing an off-guard around screens and denying him the ball, and Vick needs to guards wings; he’s just not big enough to defend in the paint.

Svi is not a good defender. Period. Newman is somewhere between average and not good himself. Combine that lack of perimeter defense with the fact that Azubuike has to limit how aggressive he is as a shot-blocker because of foul issues, and you get a team that can absolutely be exploited by opponents that can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. Arizona State – with their trio of dynamic playmakers in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Remy Martin – will make some of the nation’s best defensive teams look silly. Washington also has some better-than-you-think slashers on their roster.

It’s a major problem.

“I’m not ready to accept that that’s the best we’ve got, but it’s pretty embarrassing to keep looking at the tape afterward and say this is what we don’t have,” Self said. “We’ve been saying it now the entire year, at least from a defensive and competitive standpoint. Maybe we need to do something to shorten the game. Maybe we need to do something to figure out a matchup zone to play or something like that.”

The other place the toughness issue arises is in the ability of the Jayhawks to protect the ball. They gave up roughly a dozen points against Arizona State with pick-six turnovers, and most of those were simply an issue of getting their pocket-picked by an aggressive perimeter defender.

That leads to a bigger discussion, because …

Malik Newman (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

3. KANSAS ONLY HAS ONE PLAYER THAT CAN CREATE A SHOT

That’s Devonte’ Graham.

He is, legitimately, a top ten player in college basketball and a top four point guard in the sport, depending on what you think of Jalen Brunson, Joel Berry II and Trae Young.

But he’s also the only guy that you can trust to make a play for himself, or to make a teammate better by creating a shot for him. Svi is a spot-up shooter that can, upon occasion, attack a close-out. Vick is also a spot-up shooter than can attack a close-out. Azubuike can finish a lob and score off of an offensive rebound, but for the most part he is a catch-and-dunk big man. Put another way, you’re not giving him the ball on the block and expecting him to be able to draw a foul or score. Lightfoot isn’t really an offensive threat, and Garrett isn’t really ready.

That leaves Newman, and he was supposed to be the guy that made the difference this season. Except … he’s not the guy we thought he was in high school. In four games against high-major competition, Newman is averaging 8.8 points, shooting 37.5 percent from inside the arc, 29.2 percent from three and attempting 60 percent of his field goals from beyond the arc. The most damning stat, however, is that in 129 minutes of action in those four games, Newman has attempted two free throws.

Two!

And he’s not the only one at fault in that regard.

There are just two teams in college basketball that, based on free throw rate (FTA/FGA), get to the free throw line less than Kansas does: Jackson State and Sam Houston State, and they don’t even have the benefit of playing buy games where they are all-but guaranteed to get a friendly whistle in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

There are a few things that lead to that stat:

  • Kansas does not have penetrators that look to put the ball on the floor and get fouled.
  • Kansas does not have post presence that can draw fouls.
  • When Kansas does get the ball into the paint, it quite often ends up being some form of a lob for a dunk, which is not the easiest way to draw fouls.
  • The perimeter players on the Kansas roster all want to be shooters.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Svi shoots 46.2 percent from three. Vick shoots it at 45 percent. Newman is knocking down 40.5 percent of his threes while Graham is hitting 40 percent of his attempts.

The problem is what happens when teams chase them off the three-point line.

Washington did it. They did everything they could to keep Kansas from getting open three-point looks, to the point that, in their 2-3 zone, they Vick – at the high post – to play 2-on-1 with Azubuike against their middle defender. Vick scored 28 points and had seven assists, and – it’s going to sound crazy – when I say this, but he was exposed in that game:

Svi was exposed in the same way against Arizona State, who dogged him with smaller, quicker defends and forced him into a 3-for-14 shooting night while turning the ball over four times:

 

This is something that I think Billy Preston can help solve. He is a bucket-getter. He’s not exactly Perry Ellis, but he is a guy that can ably fill that hybrid-four role that Self loves to use. He’s the guy that can get a post touch, force a double, draw a foul, get a defense moving. He’s the guy that can be the pressure release for guards that are getting swarmed. He’s the guy that can make a team pay if they don’t want to guard him at the high-post of a 2-3 zone.

And who knows when, or if, he’ll actually play this season.

I’m officially worried about this Kansas team, more so than I am with Duke or Arizona.

It’s too early to make any predictions regarding the Big 12 title streak, but if Kansas does not get the reinforcements that they so desperately need, it will soon be time to have a serious conversation about whether or not the Jayhawks are the best team in the Big 12.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: It’s time to put Trae Young at No. 1

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1. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: The way the college basketball Player of the Year award is given out is generally pretty simple: Unless there is a player on a good team – i.e. a top four seed – having an insane, outlier season, the award is given to the best player that is on the roster of a team that is a national title contender.

That rule has proven true in every year of the one-and-done era.

  • 2017: Frank Mason won and played for No. 1 seed Kansas.
  • 2016: Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine split the award. Oklahoma was a No. 1 seed and reached the Final Four. Michigan State was a No. 2 seed and entered the tournament as the favorite to win it all.
  • 2015: Frank Kaminsky was a No. 1 seed with Wisconsin.
  • 2014: Doug McDermott averaged 26 points for No. 3 seed Creighton.
  • 2013: The only name on this list that doesn’t quite fit perfectly, Trey Burke starred for Michigan, who was a No. 4 seed that year. But they also spent much of the season ranked No. 1, reached the Final Four and finished as a top five team on KenPom.
  • 2012: Anthony Davis won as the star of Kentucky’s title-winning team.
  • 2011: Jimmer Fredette won as Jimmer-mania swept the college basketball world and BYU finished as a No. 3 seed.
  • 2010: Evan Turner beat out John Wall for most of the awards. Ohio State was a No. 2 seed and Kentucky was a No. 1 seed.
  • 2009: Oklahoma finished as a No. 2 seed after Blake Griffin returned for his sophomore season and dominated.
  • 2008: The year before North Carolina won the national title they finished as a No. 1 seed as Tyler Hansbrough won the Player of the Year award.
  • 2007: Kevin Durant averaged 26 points and 11 boards for Texas as the Longhorns entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed.
  • 2006: J.J. Redick was playing for No. 1 seed Duke, and he was almost beaten out by Adam Morrison, who averaged 28.1 points for No. 3 seed Gonzaga.

That’s why Trae Young has not topped our Player of the Year rankings yet this season.

Because there wasn’t much evidence that he was on a team with a shot of getting a top four seed. I’m still not convinced that is any sort of lock, but as of today the Sooners are now sitting at 7-1 on the season and ranked in the top 25. If they win at No. 3 Wichita State this weekend, that will change. Even if they don’t, playing in a league that is as good as the Big 12 appears to be – no one in the conference ranks lower than 63rd on KenPom – will mean that their computer numbers will get and stay inflated once league play starts.

But here’s the other part of it: Young’s season is such an outlier than the rules may not matter. Assuming he stays on his current pace (I can’t imagine that he actually will, but he might) he’ll do things that have not been done for 27 years, and that may never have been done before. Young is currently averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists. The last player to do that was Loyola Marymount’s Terrell Lowery back in 1990-1991.

And as far as I can tell, no player – at least not in the KenPom era, so please correct me if I’m wrong here – has ever posted his level of efficiency on the insane amount of usage he gets in the Oklahoma offense:

2. MARVIN BAGLEY, Duke: Bagley posted another double-double on Saturday, finishing with 15 points and 12 boards as the Blue Devils took a loss against Boston College, but what was most concerning about that performance was that he took four shots in the second half and three of them were three-pointers. That doesn’t diminish the start that he has had to the season, where he took over down the stretch in wins over Florida, Texas and at Indiana.

3. TRA HOLDER, Arizona State: Tra Holder has been the best player for the most surprising team in college basketball this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points, 5.2 assists and 5.6 boards while shooting 46.3 percent from three on more than six attempts per game. He had 29 points and seven assists in a win at Phog Allen on Sunday. He put up 40 points on Xavier. He’s having a tremendous season.

4. MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: Bridges came to the forefront on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic, and in the process took over the lead as Villanova’s Player of the Year option. Read all about that here.

5. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier: Ho hum, it was another week with a pair of 25-point performances for Bluiett. He’s now scored at least 25 points in six of 10 games this season.

6. DESI RODRIGUEZ, Seton Hall: Rodriguez has turned into Seton Hall’s best player this sason. Last weekend, he had 17 points, seven boards and four assists in a blow-out win over VCU.

7/. JEVON CARTER, West Virginia: West Virginia has completely turned things around after that embarrassing start to the season. Carter has been the catalyst. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 6.0 assists, 5.4 boards and 3.8 steals and just put 23, 10 and seven on Virginia.

8. BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: Colson’s Notre Dame team took a couple of hits in the last month, but he’s still putting up impressive numbers and is an improved defensive presence. Now if he can only find a way to start making threes at a better clip again.

9. JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota: Murphy fell this week and will continue to drop in these rankings for the same reason that I had a hard time putting Trae Young at No. 1 before this week. Minnesota needs to stop losing games.

10. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: Maye makes his way back into these rankings. He’s averaging 19.9 points and 10.5 boards for the Tar Heels this season, but he really struggled against Michigan State. I need to see Maye play more teams of that ilk before fully buying in.

ALSO CONSIDERED: DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona; JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova; KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech; D.J. HOGG, Texas A&M; DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas; DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue; YANTE MATEN, Georgia; SHAKE MILTON, SMU; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State; KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton; ALLONZO TRIER, Arizona

Point man: Can Nick Weiler-Babb’s move to PG put Iowa State back in the tourney?

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AMES, Ia. — It was clear Iowa State needed a change. The Cyclones stood 0-2 with an 18-point home loss to Milwaukee already on the resume. It was clear they were due for a reboot this season after losing four starters – including All-American point guard Monte Morris – but getting trounced at Hilton Coliseum by a team picked to finish eighth in the Horizon League constitutes an emergency.

The Cyclones didn’t panic, though. They adjusted. 

After that disastrous start to the season, coach Steve Prohm moved Nick Weiler-Babb from small forward to point guard while slotting the two players who had been manning the point –  sharpshooter Donovan Jackson and five-star freshman Lindell Wigginton – off the ball.

All Iowa State done since is win.

The Cyclones have rattled off seven-straight with Weiler-Babb flirting with triple-doubles, Jackson shooting 41.6 percent from deep and Wigginton looking like a future star.

“Good we moved him over there,” Prohm said.

It certainly has been good for the Cyclones. Iowa State was 9 of 34 (26.5 percent) from 3-point range, shot 38.8 percent overall and failed to reach 60 points in its opening two losses. In the seven games since, they’re converting at a 46.4 percent clip overall, 39.4 percent from distance and averaging 83.6 points per game. They’ve seemingly become a different team with Weiler-Babb at the helm.

“It’s taking a whole new role,” Weiler-Babb said. “Coach just told me whatever I have to do to win, I have to do it. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Take the ball out of the guys’ hands and give it to the scorers.”

The 6-foot-5 junior is averaging 7.9 assists along with 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He’s become indispensable for the Cyclones a year after being a bit player on the Big 12 tournament championship team.

“He went through some tough times last year,” Prohm said. “But that’s what everybody’s got to understand. Freshmen, sophomore, you’ve got to put your time in a little bit to have success and earn success. He’s doing that.”

The immediate returns have been spectacular for Iowa State, but a question still lingers as they eye Big 12 play later this month.

Is it real?

Or, rather, will it be real against an unforgiving Big 12 schedule? Given Iowa State’s non-conference slate, whether it is or not will determine the postseason fate of a team sitting on a program-best six-straight NCAA tournament appearances.

As good as Weiler-Babb and the Cyclones have been during their seven-game winning streak, the competition can’t be ignored. Iowa State’s best win during this stretch is either Boise State, which only got 8 minutes from Chandler Hutchison after a head injury, or Iowa, which is 5-6 with losses to Louisiana Lafayette and South Dakota State. The wins haven’t all come easy for Iowa State, either. They narrowly defeated Appalachian State and Tulsa while initially struggling against Northern Illinois and Alcorn State before pulling away.

Things have been good for the Cyclones, but they haven’t been perfect.

Iowa State is a mediocre shooting team overall and could have serious spacing issues going forward given the roster forces Prohm to play two non-shooting bigs together for major minutes. Wigginton has been excellent, scoring 20-plus in three of the last four games, but his level of athleticism is something the likes of Western Illinois can’t counter. Texas, Kansas and West Virginia can. Big swaths of the roster, which features eight newcomers, haven’t faced Big 12 caliber competition ever in their careers. Weiler-Babb’s size and skill at the point guard position makes him a major problem for mid-majors, but can he keep up this pace when he faces length and physicality similar to his own?

Those questions, though, have to be welcomed by the Cyclones. If there were answers to them for a team with so much youth and so many unproven players in new positions in mid-December, it probably would register in the negative.

That they’re unknown means there is possibility, opportunity and promise. That exists in no small part because Prohm made Weiler-Babb a point guard.

“The challenge is, what do we really want to be?” Prohm said. “But he spearheads everything we do.”

Texas’ Jones out with a broken wrist

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Texas may be without its leading scorer heading into conference play.

Longhorns coach Shaka Smart announced Monday that sophomore Andrew Jones suffered a hairline fracture in his right wrist and will be sidelined for the foreseeable future.

“Fortunately it’s not one of those injuries where he should be out for an extended long period of time,” Smart said at his news conference Monday, “but he’s going to miss at least the next few games before Christmas. They decided not to put it in a cast, which is good news.”

Jones suffered the injury last week against VCU when he took a number of tumbles to the floor. He’s averaging 15.3 points while shooting 52.4 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from 3-point range.

“It’s a tough injury for us because he’s our leading scorer and has done a phenomenal job for us this year,” Smart said. “We’re going to need everyone on our team, not just guards, but everyone on our team to step up and take a little more responsibility.

“Your margin for error is a little smaller.”

The Longhorns, who are 6-2 with losses to Duke and Gonzaga, face Michigan on Tuesday, Louisiana Tech on Saturday and Alabama next week. Jones is certainly out for those games, and his availability for Texas’ first Big 12 games – Dec. 29 vs. Kansas and Jan. 1 at Iowa State – would seem to be in question.

“We don’t have an exact timeframe,” Smart said. “It’s really good news they didn’t put it in a cast.

“We’re hopeful that we can get him back in three, four weeks, but that’s not a set timetable.”

 

Coaches Poll: Villanova climbs to the No. 1 spot

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The new top 25 coaches poll is out, and the No. 1 team in college basketball is now Villanova.

Michigan State, who received 10 of a possible 32 first-place votes, came in at No. 2 while Duke, last week’s No. 1 team, fell to No. 4 with a loss to Boston College.

After winning at Kansas this week, Arizona State vaulted up to the No. 6 spot, while the Jayhawks fell to No. 12.

Here is the full coaches poll.

1. Villanova (22 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (10)
3. Wichita State
4. Duke
5. Kentucky
6. Arizona State
7. North Carolina
8. Miami
9. Xavier
10. Texas A&M
11. West Virginia
12. Kansas
13. Gonzaga
14. TCU
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Purdue
18. Notre Dame
19. Florida State
20. Tennessee
21. Baylor
22. Florida
23. Arizona
24. Oklahoma
25. Creighton